December 2007

According to a report from the BBC, the Egyptian Government is about to enact a copyright law to protect Egyptian antiquities, and this law would apply to all nations. Zahi Hawass, who leads the Supreme Council for Antiquities (the agency responsible for Egypt’s cultural heritage) claims that the licensing money is needed to maintain monuments in Egypt.

The main target of this very far reaching legislation seems to be ancient Egyptian-themed commercial parks. Commercial uses of Egyptian antiquities (such as a picture of the Giza Pyramids) would require a license from the Egyptian state, as would any “full-scale” replica.


This is in some ways understandable, but in other ways it comes from Bizzaro-land.

It’s understandable because the US and the European Union have long advocated intellectual property maximalism (expanding the scope and reach of copyright and patents), usually to the disadvantage of the developing world. The Egyptian case, in many ways, reflects a growing trend on the part of the “Global South” to attempt to use their own versions of intellectual property protectionism for their advantage. For example, Peru has laws to regulate access to genetic resources of its natural heritage. Similarly, India has also enacted legislation to protect some traditional medical knowledge. The issue of “bio-piracy” in general reflects how nations in the developing world as well as some indigenous communities are attempting to use intellectual property legal frameworks to benefit from developments in biotechnology.

That said, intellectual property laws, in general, are typically justified to encourage innovation and creativity. Without some legal rules to extract rents, theoretically there would be less incentive to invent new technologies or make new art. Egypt’s move to claim copyright over 4000-year old monuments obviously has nothing to do with motivating new creativity or invention, since the creators of these antiquities are long dead. (Note: neither does Walt Disney’s continually demand to exclusively own Mickey Mouse…) In our legal system, such works would belong to the public domain, and would be available to all for any purpose.

This is another case of how the public domain is a highly contested concept, being undermined by intellectual property maximalists in the developed world and being questioned by some developing nations and indigenous community organizations. Instead, it seems that this is just an attempt to monopolize the global popularity of Ancient Egypt. Since tourism is so strategically important for Egypt, I suppose any competition in the tourist experience of Egyptian antiquities may be something of an economic threat. Alternatively, the continual use and expression of ancient Egyptian styles, motifs, and references may be more valuable to the Egyptian state, since this continued expression may help keep ancient Egypt alive and relevant in the popular imagination, and may generate more interest to travel to the source of Egypt’s glorious past. In the same vein, just because Washington DC uses elements of classical architecture (not to mention a famous Egyptian-inspired obelisk), I seriously doubt this fact diminishes visits to Rome or Athens. But, who knows. How cultural references like this impact tourism is an issue clearly worth of some rigorous economic analysis.

In any event, I wonder how the Egyptian state will try to enforce this far-reaching copyright claim. The Egyptomania genie is long out of the bottle (at least since the New Kingdom!). There are some 17,000 images tagged as “Giza” just in Flickr. Attempting to extract licensing rents on such uses will be monumental task, on par with building the pyramids in the first place. I really can’t see how this will help Egypt or protect and maintain its monuments. To me, this will most likely be too hard and unwieldy to enforce. And if enforcement could be effective, I suspect it will benefit Egypt about as much as lawsuits and DRM have enhanced the traditional music business (and yes, it’s going down the tubes). How this law will impact research and education about Ancient Egypt is another issue of great concern. Making it harder to use images in journals and textbooks is no way to encourage understanding of the past. Finally, I also wonder how this law would impact the antiquities trade. If it is harder to create replicas and reproductions of Egyptian antiquities (because of the transaction costs associated with licensing), would more gravitate to purchasing the “real thing”?

We’re entering a brave new world of bizzare contradictions. On one hand we have new models of sharing, open IP, peer-production and collaboration as seen in open source software, the Wikipedia, Creative Commons and the access to knowledge movement. On the other hand, we have the expansion of monopolistic intellectual property claims and increasing commoditization of knowledge and culture.


Check out the discussion on Boingboing

Update 2:

Wow! Slashdot also has a lively discussion.

Update 3:

Check out the post about this on the Ancient World group blog:

Update 4:

Here’s an interesting post by William Party, senior copyright counsel at Google. He was once in Egypt as part of a US copyright delegation.

Given the recent discussion of the role of digital data in CRM archaeology, I think that this conference might be of interest to some of you. The 2008 Computer Applications in Archaeology Conference in Budapest, Hungary will focus on the use of computer applications and quantitative methods in large-scale rescue excavations and during the processing and analyzing of the large amounts of data from such excavations.

The website for the conference ( explains:

“In Hungary and the neighbouring countries, 90% of all archaeology is concentrated on such rescue excavations. The infrastructural backwardness of EU accession countries has induced large-scale road constructions, railroad reconstructions and greenfield investments. For archaeology, these have resulted in the full excavation of large areas not connected to particular periods with huge amounts of finds and data. Our work is part of the investment, therefore it is evaluated based on economic effectiveness. The archaeological processing and historical evaluation of rescue excavations bring new opportunities for archaeology not only in quantity but also in quality. We construct new roads, and while doing so we have to use the latest methods to ensure that we create the most detailed documentation before a site is destroyed.Computer applications and various quantitative methods can be of immense help during such projects, and the aim of the conference is to explore the possibilities offered by such technologies during survey and prospecting, excavation, documentation and analysis.”

I will be in attendance and it will be interesting to see if our European colleagues have come up with any solutions (open-source or otherwise) for analyzing, comparing, accessing, and curating the large amounts of digital archaeology data created by such salvage projects. Their introductory text seems to indicate though that they too are looking for new solutions to the digital version of the “curation crisis”, so it should be a fruitful discussion.

Kevin Schwarz

Thanks to an invitation from Charles Ellwood Jones, I just wrote a post on “Archaeological Openness” over at the Ancient World Bloggers group blog. It’s a critical examination of the Open Data Protocol announced by Science Commons.

After a steep decline in blogging for the past three months, three posts in one day! (I’m between semesters, not teaching, and am avoiding grading my last papers…)

Check out Bill Caraher’s blog with a very useful and comprehensive review of the archaeological blogosphere (part 1, part 2, part 3)! For someone who’s been out of it for the past few months, this review is very useful to help catch up.

ArchaeoInformatics has an important survey to understand the needs and priorities individual archaeologists have with regard to cyberinfrastructure and data sharing. For those of you who haven’t taken the survey yet, please do at this link:

Please share this link with your archaeological colleagues. Their input will also be incredibly valuable!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had much of an opportunity to blog, or digest many of the important developments that have been taking place in the world of open access and open science.

First off, I had the pleasure of attending the Creative Commons 5th anniversary party. Besides enjoying myself, it was a great chance to reflect on how far Creative Commons has come. Millions of people and sites using their licenses, important projects in Science and Education, and continuing and growing buzz and energy.

Creative Commons made some recent announcements at the party and after that are important for archaeologists and for our planning for cyber-infrastructure. Here’s an update:

(1) CC-Zero: CC-Zero is a new protocol that lets people assert that content has no legal restrictions associated with it, or lets them sign a waiver removing all rights associated with a work. It is similar to a public domain dedication, but (in the words of Creative Commons) “The key addition is that the assertion that content is in the public domain will be vouched for by users, so that there is a platform for reputation systems to develop. People will then be able to judge the reliability of content’s copyright status based on who has done the certifying.” In other words, this seems like a way of trying to get encourage certainty that an item of content really IS in the public domain.

(2) Community Norms: One of the interesting recent developments out of Creative Commons (especially Science Commons) is the growing emphasis on relying on social norms (see this link). Social norms are an important force in science (and the humanities), and many researchers probably mistake the social norms of their fields with copyright or other legal protections. For example, archaeologists (and other researchers) have been publishing non-copyrightable facts for a long time, these include counts of species, dimensions of artifacts, etc. You’re still expected to cite the people who published these facts, even though the facts are in the public domain. This is an example of a powerful and good social norm.

(3) Open Data Protocol: Here’s where everything above comes together. The new Science Commons “Open Data Protocol” discusses the issues of copyright, factual (non copyrightable) data, interoperability, attribution, and community norms. It is an impressive and needed document, and makes a very clear and compelling case for moving away from the traditional Creative Commons approach of leveraging copyright licenses to encourage (or mandate) good behavior such as citation and attribution.

Scientific data repositories are typically full of content that is both “expressive” (subject to copyright) and “factual” (not subject to copyright). Data sources are also highly global, and therefore subject to all sorts of legal jurisdictions and rules. Because of all of these legal complexities, it becomes very difficult to achieve legal interoperability between data from different data repositories (that may have different terms of use, license frameworks, or may be subject to different legal systems). This case is clearly made in their document.

The solution that Science Commons advocates is to essentially move all open science data repositories to a common legal baseline, which is basically the public domain. This is very different to the “traditional” (if one can speak of traditional in the context of a 5 year old organization) Creative Commons approach of “some rights reserved” copyright licensing. Science Commons argues against licensing or other legal instruments to mandate “good” behavior (such as citation and attribution) of data resources, because these seem legal unworkable and have many practical problems. Instead, citation and acknowledgments of data contributions should be the province of social norms, and not legally enforced. Scientific data repositories that want to be “open” should shape their terms of use, copyright, and other policies so their content is essentially public domain and freely remixable with other resources.

Comments: Wow! This Science Commons development is very impressive, and very compelling.

Unfortunately, I think it’s very likely to freak out a large portion of the archaeological community. Science Commons is simply so far ahead of our community, that I worry about how this will be received.

I just gave a paper at the recent American Schools of Oriental Research meeting in San Diego. I presented our recent work with Prof. Martha Joukowsky to publish 15 years of her excavations at the Great Temple of Petra (see here, and here) in Open Context. This content is licensed with the Creative Commons Attribution license, the most open of their licensing choices. This was very generous and forward looking of Prof. Joukowsky.

To illustrate how far we have to go to advocate “openness”, in the Q&A part of my talk, someone in the audience advocated legally registering the copyright of archaeological content. That way, one could sue for damages in infringement. Ugh, so the discussion turned from how to share our data to how to sue each other for copyright infringement. Given some of the audience reaction to the discussion, it seems very clear that in Near Eastern archaeology, there is very little faith in “social norms”. A good fraction of my audience seemed to believe that their community was so dysfunctional that they needed legal protections.

Thus, while I a agree with the arguments in Open Data Protocol, I believe a large portion of the archaeological community has a long way to go. It will take many more examples of datasets like Petra to move this community from secrecy and suspicion. Sigh, we truly have our work cut out for us.

Update: Peter Suber (as always) has excellent commentary on these developments.